Last Friday, I successfully defended my Ph.D. thesis. For all intents and purposes, I am now the fourth Dr. Henderson in my line. I follow in the footsteps of my great-grandfather Dr. Norman Batty Henderson D.Div., my grandfather Dr. Norman B. Henderson, Jr., Ph.D., and my father Dr. Eric Henderson Ph.D. This ought to be a moment for pride. And celebration. And excitement. Instead, I feel little more than deep ambivalence.
The last couple of years have taken an incredible toll: my wife of almost 12 years suddenly and unexpectedly ended our marriage, the world has fallen into the grip of a dangerous and fast-moving virus, and my father died. Rather than take this space to discuss my own accomplishments, which feel quite small and inconsequential, I prefer to eulogize my father.
My father was a vital, engaged, unceasing human being. In January, my he was hiking the Petrified Forest. In February, he was diagnosed with lung cancer. By the end of March, he was dead. His fate may not have been unexpected. Indeed, I’ve spent the last decade dreading the phone call which finally came from my mother in February: “Your father has cancer.”
My father started smoking in graduate school in the 70s. The diagnosis was not a surprise. There was only one thing which was ever going to kill my father—the only question was when. The optimist always expected the call to come “tomorrow,” while the pessimist was always surprised that it hadn’t already come. Yet, somehow, the suddenness and rapidity of my father’s decline was shocking.
My father war born in 1950. He grew up in southern California and northern Arizona. Following in the footsteps of this parents, he constantly challenged authority through his younger years, rousing the rabble in the wake of an unjustifiable war in Vietnam. He found refuge from service in this war by remaining a student, ending up as a Ph.D. candidate in the department of anthropology at University of Arizona. While at U of A, he finished a doctorate in cultural anthropology, a juris doctorate, and met my mother, with whom he spent the remaining 40+ years of this life.
My father was one of the most brilliant people I have ever encountered. His knowlege was broad and deep, in a way that has no peer or match. He could speak with cogency and erudition on kinship structures in the south Pacific, and lithic scatters in the Great Basin, and social statistics, and Navajo politics, and supreme court rulings, and FDR’s presidency, and the geology of central California, and nearly any other topic under the sun. He had the broad curiosity of a unapologetic academic, and the focused tenacity of a trial lawyer. He was expert in the art of asking incisive questions, then sitting back and giving his conversational partner the time and space develop their ideas—be they an equal, or a student in one of his classes, or a superior needing just enough rope to hang themselves.
My father was always an enigma a to me. I long ago gave up as futile the project of measuring myself against his accomplishments and intellect, yet I would like to think that we managed to connect and achieve some level of parity in the Academy. His observations on the ins-and-outs of academic politics were always valuable—even if he refused to play the game himself—and his insights into pedagogy and assessment were beyond value. I may be the mathematician in the family, but his working knowledge of practical statistics will forever dwarf my own. Conversely, he expressed genuine interest in my thoughts on technology in the classroom and my crackpot ideas regarding rigorous mathematics instruction in any and every setting.
In early March, I gave the first version of the talk which became my Ph.D. defense. Via the magic of video conferencing, my father was able to attend this talk, despite the fact that he was sitting in a hospital bed 400 miles away. He expressed his pride, and, for that, I am more grateful that I can ever possibly express.
Upon my father’s death, I rededicated my Ph.D. thesis to him with the words
dedicated in memory of my father
Eric Bruce Henderson
a volume of margins is too narrow to contain
my gratitude for his wisdom and advice
In the week before defending my thesis, I rewrote the acknowledgements and added the terminal paragraph
Finally, I would like to recognize the enormous contributions of my father Eric, who died two months before the completion of this work. My father possessed a towering intellect, with profound insight into the inner workings of academia. His views and opinions on pedagogy, teaching methodology, good research practice, and academic administration were more valuable than I can express. I will miss our conversations immeasurably.
These 89 words are, collectively, the most difficult words which I have ever put to page. The are small, and poor, and weak, and entirely insufficient to the task to which they have been assigned. Yet they are the best that I can offer, and so… here we are.